ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: On his call list today, President Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The phone conversation comes at the end of a week where more than 30 people died in the eastern part of Ukraine near its shared border with Russia, due to the worst fighting in two years between government forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels.
On Thursday, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said the administration would not lift sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after it annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, until Russia returns control of the region.
To discuss where the issue goes from here, I am joined by Professor Timothy Frye, chair of the political science department at Columbia University.
Professor, what triggered this escalation?
TIMOTHY FRYE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Well, I think the Ukrainian forces want to send a message that they should not be forgotten. The Trump administration has barely paid any attention to Ukraine until this week, and some argue that this escalation on the Ukrainian side was an attempt to get their attention.
On the Russian side, they also may have an interest in sparking this conflict to demonstrate to the Ukrainians that perhaps the United States does have their back the way they had in the Obama administration.
STEWART: How big a test is this for the United States, given that many analysts have said, hey, yes, this is Russia saying we’ve got a new administration in the U.S. and they’re friendly to us?
FRYE: Yes, I think this is an important test. I think what Nikki Haley’s statement is about, it’s an tempt to lay the groundwork for a much broader deal with Russia. If you look at what she said closely, very strong condemnation of Russia, clear language. Also, she said, specifically, that the Crimea-related sanctions would stay in place.
But what she didn’t say was that the sanctions related to the Minsk II agreement which the Obama administration, our European partners have said, sanctions relief will not happen until both sides abide by this agreement. This was not spoken about at all. So, in this way, it’s a significant softening of U.S. support for Kiev compared to the Obama administration.
STEWART: How did the Trump administration react, as compared to how U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley reacted?
FRYE: Well, I think the Trump administration is playing a two-level game here. They’re trying to reassure Congress that they will not give away the store in any negotiations with Russia around Ukraine, because remember, Congress is putting forward legislation that would prevent the president from lifting sanctions unilaterally without congressional approval.
So, I think part of Nikki Haley’s statement was designed to reassure Congress that the Trump administration will not give away the store, and that there is no need for this legislation that would tie President Trump’s hands.
STEWART: What is it that President Petro Poroshenko wants from the United States at this point?
FRYE: Well, he wants a stronger position at the bargaining table. There’s been negotiations around Minsk II. This is an agreement whereby the Ukrainian government would devolve some sovereignty to the two regions that are in conflict, and that there would be free and fair elections held, and once those elections are held, then the Russians would seal off the border so that no materiel and personnel could cross into Ukraine and keep the fighting going.
Of course, the Ukrainian side and the Russian side have not fulfilled their ends of the bargain. But the positions of the Europeans and the United States was that only after these agreements are in place will the large-scale sanctions relief be delivered.
So, in this way, the Trump administration’s kind of hiving off the Crimea-related sanctions I think is significant.
STEWART: Professor Timothy Frye from Columbia University — thanks so much.
FRYE: Thank you very much.